In 2017, the post-Trump blue wave handed Democrats 15 seats in the House of Delegates. In the 2018 midterms, it helped the party take three GOP-held congressional seats. This year, will it flow into Virginia’s unusual off-off-year elections, in which all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for reelection but there are no national or statewide races on the ballot to drive voter turnout?
It’s the pivotal question heading into November as Democrats pursue what they view as a chance to snag majorities in both chambers of the statehouse while their party holds the governor’s office and Republicans aim to win back seats they lost in the immediate backlash to Trump’s election.
“Our guess is that the electorate will be a little friendlier to Democrats, but it’s hard to say if it’s going to be as good for them as it was in 2017,” said Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy. “It’s just really difficult to anticipate.”
Virginia is one of five states that holds its elections for state office in off-years that don’t coincide with presidential or Congressional mid-term elections. Once every four-year cycle, legislative races coincide with the statewide campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, as in 2017. And once a cycle – the so-called off-off years – they don’t, with state Senate candidates sitting at the top of the ticket.
The result is predictably low turnout. Whereas presidential election years see more than 70 percent of registered voters cast ballots and gubernatorial election years see participation ranging from 40 to 50 percent, off-off year elections typically draw turnout levels below 30 percent.
The dynamic has tended to benefit state Republicans, whose voters had been more likely than Democrats to participate in non-presidential election years. The flood of Democratic enthusiasm following Trump’s election changed that. In the 15 districts Democrats flipped in 2017, the number of votes cast for the party’s candidates nearly doubled over the last comparable election – an increase from about 115,000 votes across the 15 districts in 2013 to 224,000 in 2017. Meanwhile, support for Republicans dropped slightly, down 5 percent from 195,000 votes in 2013 to 186,000 votes in 2017.
The battlegrounds in this year’s legislative races are all in districts in which state-wide Democratic candidates won majorities in the 2017 gubernatorial race and 2018 U.S. Senate elections. Democrats are counting on that momentum to continue, saying that while they expect turnout to be down this year, they still expect it to be proportionally higher and more Democratic than the typical off-off year.
“I’m optimistic because what we’ve seen over the last couple years in Virginia is voters wanted change in their leadership,” said Kristina Hagen, executive director of the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus. “We saw it in 2017 with the blue wave that flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates, we saw it in the continuation of that wave that flipped three congressional districts last year. And, at the end of the day, I think that momentum is still there for new voices.”
Republicans, too, expect a certain level of increased support for Democrats, but whereas they were caught off-guard in 2017, this year they say they’re prepared to counter it by boosting their own numbers.
First, they say they’re spending more time engaging their supporters who don’t typically participate in legislative elections – something they acknowledge they didn’t do enough of in 2017. Second, they say they’re running candidates they view as more likely to succeed in the suburban districts where the party has struggled in recent years, touting a slate of candidates that in the House includes seven women and two African Americans.
“We understand turnout is a key variable and we are taking that into account as we build out campaign strategies,” said Matt Moran, chief of staff to House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights.
Republicans also argue they’re aided by the blackface scandal that has sidelined Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in a year he would otherwise be traversing the state stumping for his party’s candidates. Democrats say they don’t see Northam’s popularity factoring into the election and, in either case, note his approval numbers have been rebounding.
For her part, Bitecofer believes the success of either party will rise and fall on how effectively they can motivate their respective bases to the polls by nationalizing local races. In the case of Democrats, that means emphasizing ties to Trump. In the case or Republicans, it means linking Democrats to figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
On that front, she says Republicans have a head start, noting that so far, Democrats haven’t emphasized Trump in their appeals to voters while Republicans are taking every opportunity to link their opponents to national figures who are deeply unpopular among the GOP electorate. “Republicans are better at tapping into emotion and sentiment like that,” she said. “Democrats tend to focus on policy and issues.”